Joel Sternfeld demands removal of his photo on Idiom

Mark Tansey The Innocent Eye Test 1981

UPDATE: see "Update on Joel Sternfeld and Luhring Augustine"

Is it still visual art if it's not visible? Is it even still there?

A thoughtful piece by Sam Biederman, "The Portrait of a Lawyer" appeared last week on Idiom, which is an online publication produced by Barry and myself. The editor, Stephen Squibb, had tried to include at the top an image of the work by Joel Sternfeld which had inspired the ruminations of the essayist, but he was unable to do so. Instead, he and the author carefully selected another photograph done by the artist to serve as an appropriate and representative substitute.

The photograph they used, "Solar Pool Petals, Tuscon, Arizona, April 1979", has now been removed from Biederman's piece, because Idiom was instructed by the artist himself, through the agency of his New York gallery, Luhring Augustine, to remove the image.

An image of "Portrait of a Lawyer" could not be found anywhere on line, so the gallery was asked if they had one that could be used. There was no response, so Squibb uploaded the other photograph. When Luhring Augustine became aware of the piece days later they did reply, writing that neither they nor Sternfeld had in their possession the image requested. They added that they disapproved of the use of the photograph chosen in its stead, and by the way, Idiom had no right to publish any of the artist's images without his approval. When asked to proffer an image themselves, they refused, and effectively denied the publication's right to show any any of the artist's work. The real and expressed reason turned out to be that Sternfeld didn't like the article and wished to disavow it to the extent he could.

While suppressing the use of an image based on your personal preference may not quite be a form of artistic censorship, it is a story about one artist disrespecting another in a public way, and it does not make Joel Sternfeld look good.

I have always greatly admired Sternfeld's art, and had believed I had reason to think of the man as humanistic, enlightened and liberal. Now I just don't know. He confounds my expectations. I have no idea what's going on here, but nobody should get a free pass, regardless of who they may be, and especially if we're talking about an artist who might be described as august.

For me this troubling and somewhat unfathomable incident once again suggests thoughts about an artist's right, and ability, to control how the work is experienced, the distinction between a work of art and the representation of it, the continuing insecurity of artists who work in a photographic medium, the under- and misunderstood principle of fair use, who gets to see art, who decides what art gets seen, and ultimately the question of just how visible, and accessible, the visual arts should be.

And I can't help thinking of class.

Okay, now can I say I'm crazy I am about the inclusion of the Mark Tansey image, and that it ended up at the top of Biederman's essay?

[image from the University of Hawaii]